Collective Drug Surveillance

Science, technology, and life.
May 15 2009 7:47 AM

Collective Drug Surveillance

Does surveillance of individual drug abuse bother you? How would you feel if the surveillance were collective?

Thanks to increasingly sophisticated detection methods, we can now track drug abuse city by city, simply by monitoring the air and water. Here's a report flagged in Human Nature two years ago :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The test ... seeks out evidence of illicit drug abuse in drug residues and metabolites excreted in urine and flushed toward municipal sewage treatment plants. ... Preliminary tests conducted in 10 U.S. cities show the method can simultaneously quantify methamphetamine and metabolites of cocaine and marijuana and legal drugs such as methadone, oxycodone, and ephedrine. ... "Because our method can provide data in real time, we anticipate it might be used to help law officials undertaking surveillance to make intervention or prevention decisions or to decide where to allocate resources. ..."

Last year, Italian scientists found ways to detect metabolites for cocaine in the Po River, giving law enforcement officials more accurate estimates on cocaine use in the area. The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy has obtained samples from a dozen different waterways in an effort to assess illegal drug use, as well.

And here's an update posted Wednesday by Agence France Presse :

Spanish scientists have detected the presence of cocaine in the air of Madrid and Barcelona. ... The scientists looked for 17 components in five different types of illegal drugs—cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, cannabinoids and lysergic acid. The results revealed cocaine is the predominant drug in the air of the two cities, the CSIC institute said. ... The study is the result of the first use of a new method for the detection of drugs in the air. ...

Such mass sampling can reveal behavioral trends, as the AFP report notes:

The scientists also reported a higher concentration [of drugs in the air] during the weekend, "suggesting higher consumption this time."

... while at the same time "preserving the anonymity of individuals," according to water surveillance experts.

I don't see a problem with this. In fact, it strikes me as a welcome alternative to more intrusive detection methods. Do any of you libertarians disagree ?

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